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Topical Questions

Volume 518: debated on Monday 15 November 2010

In an effort to ensure that the coalition Government’s commitment to greater transparency is fulfilled in every Department, my Department has published a full structural business plan. Later this week, it will also be publishing all expenditure incurred over £25,000, as well as the expenditure that has gone to the voluntary and charitable sector, charity by charity, on behalf of the Department and its arm’s length bodies.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he say how Miss Rachel Wolf moved seamlessly from being his adviser in opposition to setting up the free schools network, then receiving a £500,000 grant from the Department for Education without any tendering process? If he cannot answer that question right now, will he undertake to write to me and explain why there was no advertisement or open tendering process for a contract of that size?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Rachel Wolf and those who work with the New Schools Network are doing a brilliant job. They are joined in doing that job by people from every party, including Paul Marshall, who is a supporter of the Liberal Democrats, and Sally Morgan, who used to work as a political secretary for the Labour party. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) will know that there were more than five organisations—there were eight, I believe—that were funded by the previous Secretary of State on the basis of no competitive process, including the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and the Youth Sports Trust. We have ensured that the best person is paid the going rate for doing a fantastic job.

T2. Although 23.3% of our pupils at primary school in Hastings are on free school meals, against an average of 15%, our head teachers are still concerned that the number of children eligible for free school meals is under-represented in my town and that some people are simply not signing up. We hope that the Secretary of State will be able to consider other ways of deciding who will be in receipt of the pupil premium, in addition to free school meals. (23541)

We are consulting on a number of ways to ensure that the pupil premium can go to those children who are most in need. One advantage of using free school meals as a measure of eligibility is that they are clearly linked with household income, although I take my hon. Friend’s point that no measure of poverty is perfect. In particular, I would encourage all schools to ensure that those children who are eligible for free school meals take up that offer.

T5. The Minister used to be fond of giving quotations about the education maintenance allowance and saying that we were not listening to heads of colleges and schools or governing bodies, so let me read him a quotation from the principal of Halton Riverside college, who is one of the most respected principals around. He says:“I believe that the Department for Education has made the wrong decision and that disadvantaged young people in Halton will suffer as a result of this decision”.That comes on top of the £1.2 million cut in the education budget in Halton and the almost £100 million cut in Building Schools for the Future, which shows again that disadvantaged areas such as Halton are suffering disproportionately. (23544)

The hon. Gentleman will understand that the Government are acting on the basis of evidence. I assure him that our determination is to ensure that disadvantaged learners are protected. He will know that the evidence conducted for the Department and for the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that the deadweight costs of the current arrangements were at 90%. That is not acceptable; he must understand that.

T3. The comprehensive spending review has set out that we intend to spend £16 billion on about 600 schools during the spending period as a replacement for the Building Schools for the Future programme. The Secretary of State will be aware that a number of initiatives, pursuant to BSF, were lost in Warrington. When does he expect to be in a position to announce the results of his capital review? (23542)

I expect to be able to announce later this year the findings of the capital review on how we can better allocate capital. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that we are spending more than £16 billion on school buildings over the next four years, which is just under twice what was spent in the first eight years of the Labour Government.

T8. Will the Minister join me in condemning the presence of the British National party on any school governing body? Will he outline what plans the Government have to prevent this from happening? (23547)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question; she has a distinguished record as an anti-racism campaigner. She will be aware that the last Government looked at how to prevent members of the British National party from teaching in the classroom, and decided in the end that the current legislative framework was sufficient. We do not take that view. We are now looking to ensure that we do everything possible to prevent BNP members from being teachers. I very much take her point about the need to ensure that governing bodies and other organisations related to schools are not populated by people with a racist or extremist agenda. We will do everything in our power, consistent with commitments to basic civil liberties, to ensure that racists cannot poison the minds of young people.

T4. The Secretary of State may be aware that over the last month there has been a double dose of good news in Haverhill in my constituency, where Castle Manor school has been awarded outstanding status for the first time and the Samuel Ward school has now become an academy. Will he visit these two schools with me so that he can learn about how they have achieved these improvements and also see how to ensure that those achievements will continue? (23543)

I would be delighted to visit West Suffolk. It is striking that in the six months since the coalition Government were formed—and my hon. Friend took his seat—educational standards in that particular part of East Anglia have significantly improved.

T10. I noticed that in his reply to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about the education maintenance allowance, the Minister said that the Government would spend the money more wisely. Will he now tell us what he intends to replace it with and stop dodging the question? (23549)

I made it clear that we intend to replace EMA with the enhanced learner support fund, which will target money at the most disadvantaged learners. The problem with EMA—forgive me for repeating myself, Mr Speaker, but I think it is necessary to amplify the point—is its dead-weight costs and its ineffectiveness at reaching the people whom it is designed to help. We will put in place a more effective scheme. The hon. Gentleman must wait and see—[Interruption.] He must simply wait and see.

T7. Only this morning, I opened an enterprise centre in Harlow, which is desperately needed because unemployment there is among the highest in west Essex. What plans does the Minister have for supporting young people to develop enterprise and business schools? Does he agree with me that our economy would benefit enormously if schoolchildren were encouraged by teachers to become young entrepreneurs and— (23546)

In his short time in this House, my hon. Friend already has a proud record of championing practical learning, including entrepreneurship. He can be assured that practical learning in our schools will, under this Government, be treated with the seriousness that it simply did not enjoy under the previous Administration.

I join my hon. Friends in telling the Minister that his policy on the education maintenance allowance is an absolute disaster for my young constituents. The Manchester college has opened a new sixth-form centre in Wythenshawe. It has taken on 180 young people this year and it aims to have 800 people on roll by September next year. Currently, 85% of them are eligible for EMA, yet he wants to take away that important financial support.

The hon. Gentleman will know that EMA is also being paid to many more advantaged young people than those whom he commends to the House. There is no determination on these Benches to add to disadvantage, but there is an absolute determination to ensure that the money goes to those who need it most.

T9. Krishna-Avanti primary school, which is in my constituency, is the first state-sponsored school for Hindus in the country. The school, which has won an award for sustainable design, has just had an Ofsted inspection resulting in an excellent review. Will the Secretary of State agree to visit that community-led school, see it at first hand, and conduct its official opening? (23548)

In this pre-Diwali season, I think we should pay tribute to the significant success of that Hindu school, and to the significant commitment of many Hindu parents to ensuring that our state education can provide respect for their faith along with a perfect preparation for the world of work and further study. I should be delighted to visit that outstanding school.

What message has the Minister for the young disabled people in Abbey Hill special school, and in other schools in my constituency, who have enjoyed taking part in sport through the school sports partnership, but will no longer be able to do so because he has withdrawn the funds?

The hon. Gentleman has only half the story. We will introduce a competitive sport ethos in schools which has been missing. We need to get much better bang for our buck than we get by spending £2.4 billion so that one in five secondary school age students can indulge in competitive sport against other schools. We want them to be doing much more, but we are not getting that at the moment.

What advice would Ministers give someone wishing to apply to become a trainee educational psychologist, bearing in mind not only the current freeze on recruitment, but the great need for an adequate supply of educational psychologists to improve education for those with special educational needs?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s interest in this issue. As I said to her a couple of weeks ago when she raised it in a debate on the Floor of the House, the current system for funding educational psychologists is just not working. Unfortunately, only 16 out of 150 local authorities have paid their contribution, although the money went into their baseline funding. That is not good enough, and the Department could not take such a risk. However, I am absolutely determined to ensure that the system changes, because I agree with my hon. Friend that educational psychologists are critical to our reform of special educational needs.

What further plans has the Secretary of State to improve the take-up of free early-education places by the most disadvantaged families?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and, indeed, for her commitment to this cause. As a result of the coalition Government’s careful stewarding of the nation’s finances, we are able to ensure that more disadvantaged two-year-olds will enjoy access to pre-school learning. We have also ensured that children of three and four will enjoy 15 hours of pre-school learning free, something of which the last Government were incapable. All that is against the backdrop of an historic deficit for which no one on the Opposition Front Bench has yet had either the courtesy or the bravery to apologise.

While I truly welcome the decision to provide 4,200 more health visitors, surely my right hon. Friend recognises that if the pupil premium does not start until a child is two years old, a valuable opportunity is being missed to build, in those first two critical years of life, the relationships between parents and children that have such a strong effect on those children’s subsequent ability to learn.

I have a huge amount of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. The work that we are doing with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), in alliance with the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who is the Minister responsible for children and families, will ensure that we intervene early, particularly in order to help the most disadvantaged children to achieve their potential.

My constituency is in the 19th most deprived local authority area in the country, and I can say with absolute conviction that the education maintenance allowance has been hugely effective in increasing participation rates there: 3,800 young people benefited from it last year alone. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the more focused, targeted support that has been talked of will help a similar number, and may I also ask him what exactly it will involve? I am not very clear about that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I know that his commitment to improving educational standards in his constituency is absolute, but I should point out that this Government are increasing education spending by £3.6 billion more than the baseline we inherited. Moreover, we are doing that against the backdrop of a catastrophic economic inheritance. Our commitment to ensuring that educational spending goes—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for—

Order. The Secretary of State is naturally a great enthusiast for debate. He must not be put off by sedentary chunterings, which should not take place. He should proceed uninterrupted with the full flow of his eloquence.

I am not put off by these chunterings, Mr Speaker. What I want to hear from the hon. Gentleman and every single member of the Opposition Front-Bench team is one word: “sorry” for leaving this country in a desperate economic mess; “sorry” for leaving our poorest children falling behind the richest; and “sorry” for ensuring that our coalition Government have to clear up the mess that the crew of wreckers on the Labour Benches left behind.

Following the introduction of modular mathematics GCSE this September, which is down to the previous Government and is widely thought to be a worse preparation for A-levels than previous courses, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the twin maths GCSEs are going to be rigorous, linear and observed by academics and learned societies?

Our White Paper will reveal several steps that we will be taking to improve the learning of mathematics, and one of the key questions we will be asking at GCSE level is how a Government who left a £155 billion deficit can have the temerity to ask for more public spending.

As youth services nationally have already been cut by 30 to 40%, the cuts to the National Youth Agency are so severe that it will no longer be able to carry out the annual audit of youth work, and Ofsted is no longer to inspect youth work, how will the Secretary of State ensure the quality of youth service provision in future?

The hon. Lady underlines the great importance of engaging the young people of this country as proper citizens, which is why we are carrying forward the national citizen service programme, which will give an offer to every 16-year-old in this country to come forward so it can help their transition to adulthood by enabling them to do worthwhile things in the community, and it will therefore offer a positive message about the good things—the great things—young people in this country do. In the past, we have been too much down on young people. I want to see a Government who are committed to being positive for youth, and this Government are.

National adoption week took place in the first week in November, highlighting the plight of the many children in care who require a permanent home. What steps are this Government taking to address this pressing issue, not least when many children have to wait many months, if not years, to be matched with parents?

Adoption is a vital component in giving often deeply damaged children a second chance of a good, stable, loving family, and it is very worrying that recent figures showed a 15% fall. I am determined that we get rid of the political correctness and bureaucracy in the system that has meant that many children are waiting too long in care, often never getting the chance of a place in an adoptive family. We need to speed up the process and do away with political correctness and bureaucracy forthwith.

Evidence from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Arts Council England and others has shown the very real impact access to live theatre can have on the attainment of young people in schools. What specific discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to ensure that all young people can still access live theatre, especially those from low-income backgrounds?

Shall I compare her to a summer’s day? [Interruption.] I am very grateful that appreciation for Shakespeare is something that unites both Front-Bench teams. I had an opportunity to talk to the RSC before the general election and I am committed, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, to ensuring that access to live theatre, and, indeed, to the very best of English literature, is at the heart of learning. I hope that the shadow Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will join me in that. I know he studied English at university, which is why I hope he will withdraw his recent comments against John Dryden, suggesting that that figure should not feature in the national curriculum.